Social Software

The excesses of "Social Software"

What is it about “Social Software” that is starting to worry me? Is it the abandonment of concepts of ‘online community’ and the complete rejection of familiar terms and paradigms like the message board? Is it the increasing lack of history? Or is it the desire to claim a territory as unexplored when it’s patently not?

There’s a post over at Matt Jones’ site at the moment concerned with attempts to define and discuss social software [Defining Discussing ‘Social Software’] and I find myself reacting to it in a completely unexpected way. Social software of one form or another has formed the core of most of the stuff I’ve worked and played with for the last several years, and I expected myself to find this resurgence of interest in these kinds of interactions fascinating and useful. But there’s something about the abandonment of concepts of ‘online community’ and the complete rejection of familiar terms and paradigms like the message board that worries me. There seems to be a bizarre lack of history to the whole enterprise – a desire to claim a territory as unexplored when it’s patently not. And more importantly a remarkable lack of implementation and experiment around the place. Where are the projects that people are assembling and playing with? Where’s the experience in running communities? Where’s the actual engagement in how people operate with each other in online environments…

The other aspect of the whole situation that I find interesting (to go off at a tangent) is this repeated assertion that social software, message-boards and the like, are over-complex paradigms that confuse the general public. A phrase I’ve heard a lot recently asserts that when we build these social spaces, these tools or devices – these workflows of human interactions – that we should always remember that we’re not building them for us. There seem to be two assumptions operating here – that the general public are profoundly stupid and that (because they have as yet not noticed this fact) designers are probably pretty thick as well. In my experience neither is true (although to be fair neither is strictly false either).

This phrase – not for us – is being used a lot at the moment about types of site (like message boards and instant messaging applications for example) that already have a significant amount of history and precedent behind them – types of site that have at least partially ‘gone mainstream’. But rather than adapt and evolve these sites (firstly making them simpler or removing extraneous functionality and then taking these simpler sites and adding new struts or concepts into them) the urge seems to be to abandon them completely and build something new – something that this time will be simpler and more effective than all the other paradigms that have fallen by the wayside already. And what are we likely to end up with after all of this process has been conducted? Sites that fulfil many of the same functions (if not exactly the same functions), but which fulfil them via completely new paradigms that have been designed rather than evolved – meaning that they’re sites that people are now forced to try and understand from scratch with little or no precedent to rely on. And these paradigms normally cannot adapt with the increasing demands of users or their increasing web savvy. To make a specious analogy – when you give people a space-hopper rather than a bike with training wheels, you can’t really be surprised when they never graduate to the bicycle in adulthood… The bicycle in this example being those forms of interaction that have spontaneously emerged out of the web’s memespace and proliferated naturally and easily across the web – sites like the message board or the weblog or even the Wiki have done…

That’s not to say that innovation isn’t important because clearly it is, but the innovation must come with the realisation of how to fulfil a need – and to do that we have to look at how those needs have been met to date and where there’s scope to bring our insights to bear. In Clay Shirky’s inspired piece that touched on the failings of early community software he talked about the assumptions that had led us to our current unsatisfactory ‘social software’ (this was before the definition of social software became victim of the urge to split it so commensurately from earlier, more familiar ‘community’ definitions). And he came up with these problems:

  • We have the wrong historical models and exotic “extremist” ideologies:
    1. The suggestion that the web should represent a shift or collapse in “identity”
    2. The need to prove purity of ‘online culture’ by foregrounding immersive MUDs and MOOs
    3. Assumption (because of scarcity of humans online) that we would be using this technology to meet people we didn’t know offline

All these assumptions were led by a fascination with the extreme possibilities of technology available at the time rather any investigation of what people were likely to – in the long-term – actually want or indeed functionally be able to do. The current hysteria reminds me very much of this attitude, these errors of first-principle and this disrespect for history and observable characteristics of how human beings actually seem to behave. It would be a terrible shame if the potentially functional, interesting and intelligent uses of social software were delayed by an explosive interest in fashionable concepts1 followed by a ten year trough of frustration – abandoning individual web-users and independent creative types like the webloggers, message-board implementers and wiki-owners to quietly (and unfashionably) get on with it like they’ve been doing for years…

Notes: (1) I’m sorry, but is not an emergent system. It’s just not. That’s a facile analogy…